Stimming refers to the use of repetitive physical movements or verbal statements for self-stimulation.1 Common examples include flapping hands, repeating phrases from movies or shows, and twirling one’s hair in their fingers.2 Stimming is most often associated with autism, but everyone stims to some extent.
What Is Stimming?
The term stimming refers to stereotyped movements or self-stimulating behaviors. While stimming can be disruptive to how an individual interacts with their environment, it is not generally a bad thing. In fact, challenges often result from how other people react to a person’s stims, not how they affect the individual. Stimming is a form of expression and can be used to respond to difficult situations or sensory experiences.3,4,5 Many stims are actually just exaggerated forms of physical movements everybody uses to express excitement or another strong emotional response.
Everyone with autism stims to a certain level, but the ways in which they do vary in intensity and frequency. For some autistic people, stimming may include actions or words that other people hardly notice. For others, these behaviors can cause significant impacts in how the person learns and socializes.4 However, there is a wide variety of different behaviors that are included under the stimming umbrella.
How Does Stimming Differ for Autistic People?
In some sense, stimming can be used as a communication tool for autistic folks and in the same way other people use words. Verbal communication can be challenging for some autistic people, and stimming replaces the need for this in many respects.6 For example, an autistic person may stim when experiencing negative sensory experiences or expressing frustration.
Humans are strongly reliant on words. Many people often mistakenly think that everything can be expressed in words. Thus, they may have difficulty handling situations where others do not share their same opinions on communication. In these cases, autistic stimming may be considered inappropriate or strange. It’s important to remember that not everyone communicates through speech. Stimming is a helpful method of expression for autistic people when words fail to fit the situation.
Examples of Stimming
There are two forms of stimming–repetitive physical movements or verbal statements. These vary greatly depending on the individual, but may include repeated phrases from a favorite film, doodling, or chewing on something.
Stimming does not only occur in autistic people, but is also commonly seen in those with ADHD. One difference is that stimming behaviors must be present in order for an autism diagnosis to be given. In some cases, ADHD stimming may be present but does not represent a major aspect of the condition. Individuals without neurodiverse conditions can also develop nervous habits that fit the definition of stimming.
Common examples of stimming behaviors include:
- Biting nails
- Twirling hair
- Rubbing fingers
- Head nodding
- Chewing on lip
Common examples of autistic stimming behaviors include:
- Flapping hands
- Repeating words or phrases
- Rocking back and forth
- Staring off into space
- Spinning objects
- Quoting movies from television shows
Stimming behaviors that may cause physical harm include:
- Head banging
- Excessive scratching
- Skin picking
- Hitting objects
- Running away
- Jumping off furniture
How Frequently Do People Stim?
Stimming occurs regularly throughout the day, but the frequency depends on the individual. A person typically stims when they are experiencing intense feelings or struggling with emotional regulation.7, 8 In many cases, how often a person becomes frustrated, excited, or anxious determines the frequency of stimming behaviors.
Stimming can be used to help a person feel more in control of feelings that seem uncontrollable or unmanageable. When someone is unable to express their negative or exciting thoughts with others through speech, they can become overwhelmed. This is the same for stimming behaviors. When a person tries to suppress their stims, it can feel like “they’re holding back something they have to say.”9 Therefore, the use of stimming throughout the day can be especially cathartic and soothing for many individuals.
Why Do Autistic People Stim?
Stimming is an important characteristic and element of autism. Many autistic people tend to become hyper-focused on one aspect of their environment or event, which is a key element underlying much of autism’s symptomatology.10
These hyperfixations can lead to heightened emotional responses and levels of stress. For example, hyper-focusing on uncomfortable physical sensations can trigger stimming behaviors until the stimuli is removed. Hyper-focusing is strongly associated with how frequently and severely an autistic individual exhibits stimming behaviors.11
Common reasons for autistic stimming include:
- Adapting to a new environment
- Easing internal tensions
- Dealing with increased emotional distress
- Communicating excitement
- Expressing strong emotions
- Pointing out something of concern or extreme interest
- Maintaining physical well-being
Can Stimming Be Harmful?
Stimming itself is not necessarily harmful, but its impacts can be. For one, a person’s stimming behaviors can cause unintentional physical harm. A person banging their head on a table is one example of this. Stimming may also cause disruption in certain situations, such as at school, work, or other public locations.
Finally, stimming can negatively impact a person emotionally when their behaviors are judged or viewed as taboo by others. This is unfortunate as it could be avoided if people would only take the time to learn and understand an individual’s unique way of communicating. When attempting to address stimming behaviors, it is always best to try and lessen the degree to which it causes harm, rather than trying to eliminate them completely.
Management for stimming behaviors may be needed if:
- It has become disruptive at school or work
- It causes physical harm
- It interferes with the person’s ability to focus
- It causes significant disruptions for others
- It contributes to social isolation
- It interferes with the person using other means of communicating
- It causes the person severe emotional distress
Tips for Stimming Management
Even if people respond negatively to stimming behaviors, it does not mean these need to change. Instead, individuals may need to revisit how they interpret and respond to another person’s stims. However, there are times when stimming does require management. In these cases, the best method to do so is to help the person approach emotional distress or overwhelm differently.
Below are tips for stimming management:
Stick to Routine
Transitioning to a new routine can be one of the most emotionally distressing things for anyone. For those with autism, this is especially true as autistic individuals have a strong need for structure and predictability. In this case, it can be difficult for others to understand why the stimming is occurring because they cannot see what is causing the upset.
To lessen the frequency of harmful stimming, it is best to stick to a routine as much as possible. At least be sure to give plenty of warning to an individual that their schedule will change in some way, so they can plan ahead. Walking them through the specifics can be beneficial.
Don’t Punish the Behavior
It is essential to recognize that a person is not stimming as a way to intentionally cause disruption or harm. Punishing the behavior is not an effective means to managing an individual’s stims. This will only increase the emotional distress a person is experiencing and cause further unhealthy stimming.
As mentioned, stimming is a form of communication. Telling someone that their form of communication is wrong can make them feel ostracized and implies that you do not care about what is bothering them. Instead, take time to look for what may be causing the person’s distress and work to help them overcome it.
Physical exercise can help manage stimming behaviors as it lessens physical tension often associated with emotional distress.12 Now, this doesn’t mean having to go to the gym every day! Exercise can involve simple activities like taking a walk or bike ride. You don’t need to set aside a big chunk of time, either. A few minutes every day can be beneficial. Multiple short bursts of moderate physical exercise can be just as helpful as one long spurt.
Introduce an Alternative
Attempting to extinguish stimming altogether will only lead to more emotional distress. However, finding a healthy alternative method of stimming is possible and effective. This may involve either introducing an entirely different stim or finding ways to lessen the intensity of the more problematic behaviors.
If an individual bangs their head on a wall when stimming, try helping them learn to bang their hands on a desk instead. While this may still be disruptive, it is no longer causing the person immediate harm. Someone who flaps their arms violently might benefit from being shown how to flap their hands or tap their feet. Taking this approach can take some time and should be done gradually to avoid further distress.
Teach Self-Coping Skills
Take note of what is happening in a person’s environment when stimming occurs. Do not focus on identifying what would bother you in the situation, but would likely bother them. Consider if there are sensory experiences (e.g., noises, smells) that may cause the person distress. Have there been any changes made to their routine or space? Even aspects of an individual’s environment that seem small to you may not feel so for them.
Teaching someone more effective ways of managing stress can help to reduce stimming. Relaxation techniques do not work directly on the stimming itself, but they can allow the person to better address the discomfort that is causing the behavior. Finding ways to prepare for and handle problematic situations in the moment is important.
Advise Loved Ones of How To Respond
It’s important to teach loved ones about what stimming means and why a person does it. Being able to recognize that others understand their means of communication can go a long way for someone who is struggling to manage unhealthy stimming.
Support from loved ones can come in many ways. For example, let your family or friends know that they should make efforts to understand why the stimming is occurring. Tell them that simply getting angry or upset about the behavior will cause more harm than good. Encourage them to make it clear to the person that they are listening and paying attention. It is essential to explain that providing emotional support can help reduce the anxiety the individual may be feeling in the moment, thus working to decrease their need to stim.
Provide a Safe Environment
Creating a safe environment is important as it reduces the stress and emotional upset that contributes to stimming. To start, make sure to listen to the person who is stimming and reassure them that they are allowed to express themselves comfortably. Make it clear that they will not be punished for their behaviors. Giving a person the space to engage in stimming without being yelled at or judged is essential for helping them feel safe. Tell them that you understand and are there to help them overcome their issue.
When to Seek Professional Help
When stimming causes problems for an individual, it may be beneficial to seek professional help. In many cases, this may mean reaching out to someone who specializes in autism. There are a number of autism support networks who can likely offer referrals. Finding a neurodivergent-affirming therapist can also be done using this online therapist directory.
Stimming is a form of communication that can reflect emotional distress or excitement. It is not a behavior to be punished, but one that should be understood. Stimming can be useful for expressing when a person is feeling overwhelmed, a means of seeking needed attention, or emotional regulation. While interventions are sometimes needed to lessen the severity of stimming, the focus should always be on helping the person feel understood and more in control of their environment.